18 December 2006

A Query for Public History

To all public historians: who is our audience?

A simple question, not so simple to answer. I was thinking about who the public is in “public history.” Of course, that public is me. But I do not think that I am the typical public history consumer. After all, by virtue of the fact that I am enrolled in a Master’s program in Public History, I think I can safely make the argument that I have a greater interest in the public presentation of history than at least 90% of the population.

I think rigorously applied methodologies to discovering audience demographics have merit. The thing is, they also require time and resources, neither of which are available to me at this moment. What I need right now are some blog posts about public history.

Thus, I am not able – or willing – to take a highly scientific approach to figuring out who the public in my public history is. Or what they want to hear, see, read, learn, deduce, ignore, refute, contemplate, or any other such thing that history can make you do.

So my question becomes: if I am not the average, then, who do I think is? And how can I access that public to find out what interests them?

The simplest answer that occurred to me in this regard was that the public to whom I want to get my history out to are people like my family and friends. What is even better about my drawing this conclusion, convenient as it is, is that I have access to them.

Moreover, being a public historian, I do not want to write only for an academic audience. I am pursuing a Master’s in public history because I want to engage with the public. So, the public, not just my professors, classmates, former professors, and other academics, ought to be reading this blog. I want to hear from the people for whom public history is created.

I still want to hear from my colleagues and mentors, of course. I would not be here were it not for them. They provide valuable and rich insights that I need. I also, however, would not be where I am (London, Ontario, at the University of Western Ontario, in the History Department, Public History stream) without the people in my social circles.

Which brings us back to my family and friends. I’m not afraid to admit that what I do in every part of my life I do, to some degree, to impress the people around me. I don’t mean impress them like one might try to impress a Monarch (or professor). I mean impress them in the sense that all the hassle and trouble I have caused them over the years has been worth it. I want to show the people around me that I made something out of the morass (thanks, Alan) that is myself.

Wow. This is getting way too personal.

My idea is to encourage those I know and love to read my blog more and give me feedback on what I have written.

For fear that it will bore them to death (because of the subject matter), I have thus far been reluctant to tell too many people about my blog. Generally speaking, I want to avoid making the people around me uncomfortable. You know that feeling of discomfort when someone makes you something, or cooks you something, or gives you something, and it sucks, but they are right there asking you how much you like it? Are you familiar with that uncomfortable feeling? I don’t wish that upon anyone, least of all my loved ones.

But as history has taught me, sometimes uncomfortable is the best thing we can ask for. The (watch out for the cliché) truth hurts. So I have decided that I need to face up to the truth. Unfortunately (actually, I don’t think the truth should ever be viewed as unfortunate) in this instance, so do those around me. They need not feel uncomfortable (though they surely will) about telling me my blog posts are boring. Or incorrect. Or stupid. That’s fine. That is what I want. I want to improve; I want to get better. And if that means making the readers of this blog uncomfortable when I get all up in their faces, demanding answers to my questions, well, so be it. They will be able to look upon whatever I do with my life with a little bit of satisfaction in knowing that they helped make me who I am.

One thing I know without anyone telling me is that I need to keep these blog posts shorter; otherwise, no one is going to read them.

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